Sue Avery Brown
May 13, 1996 12:00 PM

He has a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard, writes about behavioral science for The New York Times, is married to a psychotherapist and has two sisters who are therapists. Yet ask Daniel Goleman to grade his emotional intelligence, and he gives himself only a B. “In school I was always elected president, so I had social skills,” he says. “But that didn’t keep my first marriage together, so I must have been missing something. I’m a mixed picture.”

Discouraging news for the rest of us, perhaps, but as Goleman, 50, makes clear in his book, Emotional Intelligence, a study of nonintellectual factors that govern personal and professional success, it’s never too late to get smart about feelings. And the effort is worth it: Emotional skills, Goleman maintains, are at least as important as IQ in determining individual achievement.

Goleman’s thesis, based on recent psychological research, has struck a chord. Emotional Intelligence is now entering its ninth month as a bestseller and has sold almost 600,000 copies. Praised by Hillary Rodham Clinton, among others, the book has brought a flood of speaking requests to its author, the father of two sons (Hanuman, 20, a college student in Vermont, and Gov, 23, a recent graduate of Reed College), who prefers time at home in the Berkshires in Massachusetts with second wife Tara Bennett-Goleman to appearances on the lecture circuit. But he’s not complaining. “I’m happy the concept is getting attention,” Goleman says. “We need to be teaching emotional skills to children.” He spoke with correspondent Sue Avery Brown.

What is emotional intelligence?

It isn’t just one thing. It includes knowing what you’re feeling and using that knowledge to make good decisions. It’s being able to manage distressing moods—calming yourself when you’re anxious and handling your anger appropriately. It’s maintaining hope in the face of setbacks, having empathy and being able to get along with people.

Are some people born with more emotional intelligence than others?

We don’t know what proportion is inherited, but a lot is learned. The brain shapes itself through repeated experience, so if a child grows up in a household where when people are angry they yell and hit, that’s what the child learns.

Do women tend to be more emotionally skilled than men?

The data shows that women are raised to be attuned to people’s feelings, so on average they’re better at empathy. But men are often better at shaking off distressing feelings—they’ll distract themselves by going to a ball game, while women will ruminate about what’s got them down. We all have our areas of strength and weakness.

How does a lack of emotional smarts hinder success?

In many ways. A child who is always anxious or angry and doesn’t know how to handle those feelings isn’t going to learn as well. Young girls who confuse their feelings of anger, anxiety, boredom and hunger, a recent study found, are more at risk for developing eating disorders. Emotional aptitude, by contrast, can give you an edge. One study found that feeling optimism in the face of obstacles was a stronger predictor of college freshman grade-point averages than were SAT scores.

Is there a correlation between lack of emotional intelligence and crime?

Yes. Three things make a person more likely to commit a crime: impulsivity, poor anger control and lack of empathy. If you have all three, you have a dangerous recipe for a human being.

Do you think emotional intelligence is increasing, or decreasing, in America?

The most troubling findings I cite in my book are a pair of national surveys in which more than 2,000 children were rated by their parents and teachers. The first survey was done in the mid-’70s, the latter in the late ’80s. The results suggested that, over 15 years, kids had become more impulsive, disobedient, angry, lonely and depressed, among other things. Childhood isn’t the same as it was 20 years ago—parents have less time to spend with kids, more families are isolated from grandparents and other relatives, kids spend more time in front of the TV or computer, and they’re not getting the emotional foundation they need. The teen crime rates, drug-abuse rates and so on are only now helping us realize that.

What can parents do to improve their children’s emotional skills?

Even given the constraints of family life today, parents can do an immense amount. If Suzy comes in crying because her friend won’t play with her, a parent can help her understand that she is angry and sad, suggest playing a game alone until she calms down and then brainstorm things she can do to make the situation better. Helping children not to be helpless in the face of strong emotions is a crucial lesson.

Can schools help improve emotional intelligence?

Some schools already have curricula in emotional skills, where they teach things like how to calm yourself down or how to recognize a person’s feelings from facial expressions. Those things matter—bullies, it has been discovered, tend to misinterpret neutral faces as hostile and react as if they’re being threatened. The results in these programs have been dramatic—kids get in fewer fights and are sent to the principal’s office less often. They have better empathy and learn better. The centers of the brain that regulate emotion are formed by recurring experiences throughout childhood and adolescence, so we should make the best use of that period.

How can adults raise their emotional IQs?

Some people do it through psychotherapy, some through a good marriage—I think a lot of men learn to be more empathetic from their wives. People also learn social skills like listening and being more assertive through business training these days. You can learn emotional skills at any point, and the odds that you’ll have a happy, successful life are much greater if you do.

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